Whatever Happened to the ‘Us vs. Them’ Olympics?
The days of symbolic world-power competition are over, replaced by something less pitched but just as revealing.
The creators of the modern Olympics founded the Games with the intent to foster peace and brotherhood, healthy athletic competition, a humanistic appreciation of man’s great achievements—et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. A nice thought. In reality, for the vast majority of the Games’ history their dirty, open secret has been that ruthless, zero-sum geopolitical competition, not sports, really gave the quadrennial competitions their sizzle.
In 1936, with Germany a hostile and ascendant power, the Black sprinter and long jumper Jesse Owens shamed Adolf Hitler on his home turf by beating every white athlete in arguably the Games’ premier event. When the civil rights era was at its fever pitch, Tommie Smith and John Carlos asserted their dignity by raising their fists in a Black power salute after a 1968 gold medal win in Mexico City. In the gloomy thick of the Cold War, Americans who otherwise could not have cared less about either the decathlon or hockey hailed Caitlyn Jenner’s flag-waving victory lap, and then the “Miracle on Ice,” as triumphs of patriotic grit over the faceless Soviet machine.
In recent years, such symbolic victories have been in short supply. The idea that each Olympics offers a shadow competition between political systems, or ideological regimes, or ways of life, now seems as outdated as the deeply-70s shag haircut Jenner sported in 1976. When politics have entered the arena since then, the intrusion is often considerably less dramatic — such as Iran’s hushed payment to a judo champion to avoid a match with an Israeli opponent in 2004, or when the Georgian government protested Russia’s Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014 but ultimately sent four athletes to the Games regardless.
Since the early nineties China has been the States’ most serious, consistent gold medal challenger for the Summer Games, even stealing their first overall win in the home-field 2008 Beijing competition. But despite repeated athletic clashes between the two major players amid a theoretical, endlessly-debated “new Cold War,” the Olympics have failed to raise much nationalistic dander about the superiority of liberal democracy to autocratic state communism, or vice versa.
With all their pomp and circumstance, the Games are now more of a showcase for individual achievement than they ever have been, rather than a steam valve for national rivalries. Athletes like Michael Phelps, Simone Biles, or the Chinese gymnast Li Xiaopeng are famous more for their personal trials and off-the-field personality quirks than as “Rocky IV”-style national stand-ins. In that way, today’s Olympics are arguably closer in spirit to the Games’ original mission of promoting a sort of global humanism and goodwill than they have been since the World War I era.
But that doesn’t mean that the Games have no political resonance whatsoever. Quite the opposite: This year’s Summer Olympics, originally slated for last summer in Tokyo, have become the red-hot epicenter of the global debate over how to combat the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic in a responsible and equitable manner. There’s also the racialized controversy over U.S. sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson’s suspension for marijuana use; umbrage from other southeast Asian countries over Japan’s refusal to explicitly ban its Rising Sun flag; and, of course, the expectation that the Russian government will engage in its tried-and-true pastime of hacking the games as a middle finger to Western domination.
And then there’s the perennial bugbear of Olympic politics: The widespread immiseration, graft and waste that inevitably follows the transformation of any given urban center into a hub for big-money international competition. If one were to superimpose an ideological framework onto today’s Olympics, they could credibly make the case that it’s not East vs. West, or the individual against the collective, but the haves against the have-nots — not just at the institutional level, as cities bend over backward to accommodate the world literally landing at their doorstep, but among competitors as well, with some facing deep financial insecurity on their way to global competition.
And yet: If ever a clash of civilizations were occurring on a global scale in our post-Cold War, less-binary world, it would be now. Young democracies across the globe like Hungary, Poland, and Venezuela have backslid into autocracy over the past decade-plus. China and Russia stand ready and eager to nudge their younger cousins onto a similar track, not to replicate the Soviet empire-building project, but simply to further kick dirt onto the concept of liberal democracy and therefore bolster their own cachet.
Given that highly-charged ideological conflict, it’s actually incredibly weird that today’s Olympics haven’t adopted the nature of their historical predecessors. But it’s also reassuring. We’ve come to understand our historical Soviet antagonists not as steroidal automatons, but individuals at the mercy of a flawed system, like Arvydas Sabonis, the Lithuanian basketball hero who dominated for the USSR before finally representing his own nation proudly at the 1992 Games in Barcelona (not to mention fathering a current-day NBA All-Star). Our pop culture lacks the personalized hatred and villainization toward Chinese or Russian athletes that was once a basic, expected element of what it meant to be an American. That’s real progress.
It’s also what makes today’s Olympic games so rich and enjoyable. As it turns out, investing nationalistic pride in an event that people across the globe now understand to be at the mercy of various corrupt bureaucracies isn’t particularly useful—and sport for sport’s sake can be far more satisfying. Just here in the United States, the miraculous revival of softball, the unexpected-yet-overdue institutional legitimization of skateboarding, or the unprecedented athletic dominance of Simone Biles, are each worth of simply celebrating in their own right, absent any exaggerated vitriol toward our international rivals.
Despite the modest beating it’s taken of late, American soft power still reigns supreme. The ability to tell those compelling stories—and, more importantly, unify people around them—might be a nation’s defining competitive virtue on this stage, more than the sheer will to manufacture dominant athletes. Look at the myths we’ve built around Phelps, Biles, or any number of the newer young stars competing in Tokyo this week: even in a globalized, less politically hard-edged Olympics, Americans still have a clear advantage.